Monday, April 30, 2012

Cairo, 30 April. Bab el-Louq, near Tahrir Square, Cairo.

From my room in my hotel I could hear the demonstration in Tahrir Square, so I went along this evening to take a look. It seems rather odd in retrospect that it was a completely unworrying experience to walk past several dozen salafi men, beards and no moustaches, carrying clubs and metal poles, whose appearance and whose slogan of "Students of Islamic Law" echoed the Afghan Taliban; but although these were the heavies deployed to guard against any attacks by the police, the scene around them resembled a fairground more than a revolution. There were a great number of food stalls, one of them labelled "Revolution fuul" (like U.S. "Freedom Fries"?)  The only women that I could see were the vendors at a couple of these stalls. A man stood addressing the crowd from on top of a slightly ramshackle-looking tall podium. The whole thing reminded me of Speakers Corner in London as it might have been in headier and more revolutionary days.

The salafis, many of whom are to be seen in the street outside the hotel, are here to complain at the exclusion of their candidate from the Presidential election. If there were other groups using the square, then they were keeping their peace.

Perhaps, then, the scene should evoke a much earlier scene from Cairo's history. The Salafis (who seek to recreate the conditions of early Islam - so perhaps they are conscious of the image) are living in tents in the square, rather perhaps as the Arab armies lived when they first came to Cairo in 640 AD. The stream of cars that still manage to pass by, the concrete bulk of the Egyptian government building the Mugamma', and the salafis' own laminated posters decorating the square (denouncing Amr Mousa, a probable candidate for the Presidency, as a traitor) make the scene indisputably an urban and modern one. The salafis themselves, locals claim, are from the countryside.

Across from the protesters' camp are various stalls selling what they can - one of them sells flags, including ones suitable for salafis and others suitable for football fans (Barcelona, Ahli, Zamalek...) but, said the stall-keeper, football had gone flat lately.

Al Jazeera's cameras were recording the whole scene from a studio above a fast-food outlet.

Monday, November 21, 2011


I am about half way through a book on minority religions in the Middle East -- and so I want to turn this blog more over to that subject and maybe a bit less on Afghan politics, though I want to cover Afghan religions in the book as well (drawing a bit on experiences in the Wakhan valley, and my years in Kabul).

Yes, there are religions other than Islam in Afghanistan, though they are very small these days; but maybe I should start off my series with a picture of a religion in a quite different place, in Moscow.

The things that surprised me: the beauty of the nineteenth-century heart of Moscow, which was much more elegant than somehow I had expected; the wealth of the literary and artistic heritage (the Tretyakov gallery has plenty of fine paintings by artists never heard of in the West; while every street in the city centre seems to have a museum to Chekhov or Pushkin or Gogol or Tolstoy); and the immense efforts that are still going into the resurrection of Russia's churches. A couple of these can be seen below and others can be viewed at my online album here. One church, which took 48 years to build and was 30 storeys high, was then demolished by Stalin after it had only been in use around 50 years; it has now been rebuilt (in much less time; and no expense was spared.) Everywhere onion domes are being renewed, repainted, or replaced with ones made of sheet-metal.

I visited one particular church, thanks to the driving of a patient friend, which was different from all others. It was obvious from the very moment I stepped inside that it was distinctive: somehow the smell of it, which I think was the faintly cloying smell of antique wood, suggested that there was something slightly archaic in its design. The floor was wood, not stone, and the icons were in a traditional, Byzantine, non-realist style. Every single one of them depicted a saint lifting up his or her hand in blessing - each, visibly, with two fingers outstretched. This was a church of the Old Believers.

The picture below is of Countess Morozova, being dragged off to Siberia for the sin of crossing herself with two fingers instead of three. There were at that time (the late 17th century) reforms being introduced which some Russians rejected - they included the spelling of the name of Jesus, the direction in which processions were carried out, shorter services, new forms of iconography, and (perhaps a general cultural change rather than a church one) the shaving of beards. Those who rejected these changes came to be known as the Old Believers, and were persecuted for two hundred years.

This explains, perhaps, the rather cool reception we got when we visited the church. My Russian friend talked to the lady (there is always a middle-aged lady at every church or museum, or several, apparently guarding the entrances; many seem to have been trained in intimidation techniques) and she said, you can't go any further into the church than where you are now standing. My friend asked why, and she said, because you aren't part of our group. My friend said (he told me this later) that I was an Anglican (I'm not), belonging to a religion that is headed by a monarch (a cunning sales pitch appealing to the lady's sense of tradition), definitely not one of those Roman Catholics (I am), and could I be allowed to enter the church please? Ah, she said, but here's the question: does he cross himself with three fingers or two?

I had not dared to cross myself at all: I didn't know how the lady would react to someone crossing themselves with four fingers.

The incident is a reminder of how closely religious and national identities can come: in one sense, the Old Believers were fighting passionately for tradition, but in another they were defending distinctively Russian customs and opposing the introduction of ones that were used elsewhere in the world (by the Byzantine church, specifically). The sense of the identity between the Russian nation and the Russian church comes across powerfully in the work of the painter Nesterov, who painted this picture as an illustration of it:

Nesterov's paintings are often on religious themes. He lived to see the anti-religious policies of the Communist Government, and his last painting in the gallery, dated 1924, is of an agonised Christ dragging his cross uphill. Today an entire room in the prestigious Tretyakov gallery is dedicated to him, yet another sign of the restoration of religious freedom. There are of course plenty of non-Christian Russians; one in seven is Muslim, and quite a few are Jewish. So let's hope that the new Russia can be inclusive as well as devout...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lessons for Libya from Iraq and Afghanistan

This is my latest piece (can be found at

Lessons have clearly been learned from Iraq for post-Gaddafi Libya.  They will have been passed on, not least, by the British envoy to the Libyan rebels - John Jenkins, who was ambassador in Baghdad before going to Benghazi.  The National Transition Council’s blueprint for preserving order in a post-Gaddafi Tripoli appears designed precisely to stave off the kind of anarchy that prevailed in Baghdad in 2003.  Though it has not so far succeeded, that is not for want of thought and planning.

This of course is the danger of all lessons learned after an event: simply knowing what went wrong last time does not mean that it can be done the next time around.  Events happen rapidly and chaotically, and the parties involved are not necessarily going to stick to any plan that has been given them. 

We can be sure, in short, that other things will go wrong in Libya. People will die; shops and government buildings will be looted; the new government will seem weak, or autocratic, or even both; the country’s economy and infrastructure will take years to rebuild.  But we should beware hasty despondency just as much as hasty triumphalism.  All these things may happen, and yet the revolution will still have been a success, if it can deliver Libya a better future than the one that it faced under Gaddafi.

None of these things should make us want to send foreign troops into Libya.  And that, I suggest, is the clearest lesson to be learned from Iraq, Afghanistan and even Vietnam.  In each case, the fact that the country’s government needed an outside power to provide its military capabilities had three significant disadvantages.  First, it gave its enemies the patriotic high ground.  The Taliban have taken full advantage of the fact that they are fighting British soldiers in southern Afghanistan; it has meant they can call on all the folk memories of three Anglo-Afghan wars.  A foreign combat presence in Libya risks stoking Islamist sentiment but also stirring painful memories of the Italian occupation of Libya in the 1920s and 1930s, during which tens of thousands of Libyans died in concentration camps. 

Second, it made those governments look weak.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought, ever since taking power, to project strength – and one way he did so was by asking British troops to leave.  No wonder: a government that needs foreigners to protect it is not only discredited politically, but is obviously vulnerable.  Foreign support being often a fickle thing, it can encourage internal enemies to believe that they need only wait out the foreigners rather than make peace.  Even if Libya’s path to peace may be bloodier without foreign help, it will be a surer peace if it is home-grown rather than imposed from outside.

Third, it sapped the initiative and willpower of the countries’ own governments, encouraging an unhealthy dependence on foreigners. Afghan leaders have felt hemmed in by the multifarious advice of their foreign allies, the fact being that a large part of the economy, and the executive arm of the government, has become dependent on them.  Sherard Cowper-Coles’s memoir Cables from Kabul, and Roderic Braithwaite’s Afgantsy, illustrate this with examples from the Western and Soviet experience in Afghanistan respectively. 

The National Transition Council does deserve our support, but not of that kind; even if it asks for foreign combat forces then NATO should refuse.  Unfreezing assets, and promoting EU-Libya trade, would be better ways to help – putting aid above defence, and trade above aid.  It should be politically savvy kind of help, one which again lets the Libyans decide what structures of government they want, rather than bringing in Western consultants with cookie-cutter solutions and a yen to create in Tripoli the kind of institutions that work in Washington and London. 

There are three areas where our advice might be particularly useful.  First, on how to keep the oil industry from becoming a source of corruption -- as it became in Iraq.  Second, how to keep the country's arsenal of weaponry (including any chemical weapons) from falling into the wrong hands.

The third area is the holding of elections.  These can be a powerful legitimising tool.  They have often however proved cumbersome, destabilising and divisive – specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Afghan election results have split almost consistently on ethnic lines; early elections in Iraq cemented the country’s religious divisions.  An abortive Algerian election in 1991 prompted a vicious civil war.  None of this shows that elections are wrong, but they do show that they must be adequately prepared for.  

A constitutional process, on the other hand, is something that the Libyans should be left to take at their own speed.  In both Afghanistan and Iraq, rushed constitutional processes – at least partly designed for the international audience – probably made peace settlements harder by setting the country’s government arrangements in stone.

There is one last lesson that I hope we take from Afghanistan and Iraq.  If we hope to influence a country, and if we are in fact (whether we choose it or not) in a position to influence its future for better or worse, then we have a moral duty to treat its people – as Kant would say – as ends, not means.  We should care about Libyans’ lives, aspirations, ambitions and fears.  Our diplomats should take risks, if need be, to make sure that they continue to listen to the Libyan people.  Our leaders should take care to communicate with them, rather than letting them hear Western policies announced at second or third-hand.  Arabic satellite channels offer that opportunity.  The UK, French and US governments should redouble their efforts to monitor and engage with those satellite channels, in close coordination with the Libyan government, to ensure that political signals in Paris, Washington and London are not misunderstood.  

Gerard Russell is a senior associate at the Foreign Policy Centre and served as a British diplomat in Iraq (2005-6) and Afghanistan (2007-9)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Cables from Kabul

I came back from Afghanistan, via Lebanon, to London and attended the book launch for Cables from Kabul.

I read Sherard Cowper-Coles's book many months ago, while it was in draft, and I was sitting by San Francisco bay.  I found it impossible to put down -- partly, to be honest, because I was checking whether I was mentioned in it; partly also because it is so well-written.  The opening is particularly vivid.

There have been a spate of reviews of it -- the Guardian's is here, and here, the Telegraph's is here. It comes against a backdrop of gathering gloom over Afghanistan, which the book does nothing to dispel.  At least, the picture from Britain is one of gloom.  In the US press, Mike O'Hanlon and the Kagans  give a different picture, -- of U.S. military success in southern Afghanistan.

Sherard C-C on the one hand, and the Kagans and Mike on the other, have different goals.  The latter are writing in order to ensure that this summer's draw-down of forces is limited in scale (for more explanation on the draw-down, here is an FT editorial making the same case).  Their argument is that some success has been achieved, but that it is fragile and will be lost if the U.S. does not stay the course.  Sherard meantime is arguing for talks with the Taliban.  Let me make brief comments on both of these propositions.

The successes of the U.S. military are not the most important factor in deciding whether Afghanistan in the future will be any better for its people, or even more favourably disposed to the U.S., than it was pre-2001.  The most important factor is the capacity of the Afghan security forces.  Not only, as the Independent on Sunday pointed out (as, months before, had Mike O'Hanlon's excellent index), is there no Afghan unit capable of independent operation; but also a series of assassinations in recent weeks has struck at the heart of what capacity they had had.  Specifically the death of Daoud Daoud, commander of Afghan police in northern Afghanistan, was a very serious blow to the efforts of one section of the Afghan body politic to dominate the north-east of the country, and in doing so suppress the Taliban presence there.

Meantime, talks with the Taliban -- which I support -- cannot be the sound of one hand clapping: there need to be incentives for the Taliban to want to talk.  U.S. military success is a short-term problem for them, which they can overcome by surviving.  Afghan success is a much greater threat: hence the assassinations.

So what's needed in Afghanistan is an urgent re-think about why the Afghan forces have been slow to progress.  Is it possible that they have become dependent on U.S. forces, that the massive foreign military presence is somehow both professionally and morally debilitating?  Some Afghan politicians and generals that I saw in Kabul thought so.  It does not mean of course that it should be withdrawn suddenly.  But it does mean that a reduction in the foreign military presence, and a greater sense of Afghan ownership, might actually strengthen the Afghan forces rather than the reverse.  After all, this was the sense that Max Taylor had in Vietnam: the 'crossover point' at which more American effort meant, perhaps unconsciously, less South Vietnamese effort.

A reverse crossover point might be achieved in Afghanistan, one that galvanises Afghans at all levels into protecting their country.  Experience suggests it would need to be fortified with at least two external factors: an acceptance of the status quo by Afghanistan's neighbours, and preferably a long-term security guarantee from the international community, one that involves minimal contact between foreign military and Afghan civilians.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cloud to Street

A group of talented Canadian friends have put together a project called "The Cloud to Street" - which aims to contribute the expertise and networks its members have developed in the fields of international politics and diplomacy, democracy promotion and communications to ensure that the networked power of Egyptian activists wields as much influence in offline political processes as they do online.  I'm proud to be involved with them

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fil Motco was someone I was always glad to see; and when I called the Mazar office, he was someone I'd be glad to hear, partly because he was so helpful.  And cheerful, which not everyone would be when headquarters called up.  He was one of the many hundreds of remarkable people that were drawn to Afghanistan and gave its international community there, including the United Nations, a wealth of talent.  I don't pretend to have known him well on a personal level, because he was in Mazar-e-Sharif and I was in Kabul.  But without wanting to discriminate between the importance of different people's deaths, when I saw the pictures of those who had been killed in Mazar-e-Sharif on 1 April and I recognized his picture, it brought the events of that day home to me in a new way.

tribute page has been created on Facebook to those who died.

The events in Mazar gave me more questions than answers.  Writing articles seems like an inadequate kind of response.  But I did put one of my questions into a piece I have just written for Canada's Journal of Ideas.  It compares the first recorded encounter of Afghans and Westerners, back at the start of the 19th century, with this present and uglier experience, and I ask: are the inequalities and indignities of life in Afghanistan and elsewhere playing a part in these manifestations of religious fanaticism?

I am in Kabul myself now, and will be blogging from here more regularly than I was for the past month.  I have sadly missed Mark Sedwill, who has just left his position as NATO senior civilian in Kabul after an impressive performance there and as British Ambassador.  His recent speech at the Asia Society outed him as a supporter of reconciliation with the Taliban, in certain circumstances.

It did not go as far as David Miliband, who has written powerful and urgent arguments for a political settlement in Afghanistan, given that foreign forces are supposed to leave the front line of the fighting against the Taliban by 2014.  His theme is 'ending it not mending it' - quite rightly.

After Kabul I hope to continue researching my book for a few weeks in the Middle East, including with a trip to Pakistan to see the Kalash people.  

I've also been lucky  enough to hear Anthony Shadid come and speak here (off the record: sorry I can't pass on what he said!) He was invited by Emma Sky, whose recent piece at Foreign Affairs can be found here.  It calls for more U.S. focus on democratization processes in Iraq, as the troops leave.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

22 March: Cairo

I arrived in Cairo yesterday.  People (Egyptians) keep asking me 'aren't you afraid to come here' and 'what do you think of all the problems we're having' as though the euphoria of Tahrir Square has been replaced with a more familiar angst.  Yet the casual visitor gets little sight of any reason for this angst; there is only the curfew, imposed from midnight till six, which has quieted the usual dawn chorus of parsley and fruit-sellers who would (when I lived here) arrive by horse and cart from the countryside and cry their wares at first light.  

The streets by day are just as lively as ever.  When I say lively, I just had to walk across a four-lane highway in the face of speeding vans and cars that had to brake to avoid me.  It's been a while since I did anything like it but it seemed to impress the taxi-driver (who had stopped the other side of the road, which was why I had to cross it) so that he told me he felt I must be a Cairene.  Every culture has its rite of passage and Cairo's is the crossing of its roads.

So, maybe the worriers are just an unrepresentative group...  I tell them the rest of the world is in awe of their achievement.  I did, to be honest, hear some disturbing predictions for Egypt's economy at a conference organized by MEC in London last week; and the speaker, from Roubini Global Economics, was herself a very impressive Egyptian analyst.  But there is also a very healthy debate on the radio stations here about the future direction of the country, where issues like corruption are being discussed openly for the first time.  And that gives me personally hope for its longer-term political and economic development.

I am here till Sunday, mostly to research a book I am writing which will describe a personal journey of mine across the Middle East, focussing mainly on the region's various religions and the connectedness of the past and the present.  (When I have a publisher I will say more about this.)  Then I am back in the USA from 30 March.  Harvard has very kindly extended my Fellowship till June.

I have published lately an article at on political strategy and transition in Afghanistan, and (at the British website TotalPolitics) some reflections on the Libya crisis and the need that it highlights for diplomats (and analysts) to get out more.  A paper that I wrote last year, examining how the U.N. could play a role in Afghan peace-building, is being published by the International Peace Institute and I'll include it in a future post.

An excellent conference at Stanford at the end of February considered statebuilding and democracy in Afghanistan; I found myself among some considerable luminaries including the ever-impressive Ashraf Ghani.  A few days before that, my tireless and dedicated colleague Michael Semple arranged for our Afghan-Pakistan group at Harvard's Carr Center to go to Canada to meet some razor-sharp political analysts in Ottawa.  I am engaged in a couple of extra projects right now that I'll describe when they have had a bit more time to evolve; and am looking forward to Sherard Cowper-Coles's forthcoming book on Afghanistan (I have read a proof and can tell you without bias - honestly! - that it's a cracking read.)